Victoria’s chief health officer, Brett Sutton, has apologised for comments he made singling out Melbourne’s Afghan community in relation to a Covid-19 outbreak in Casey.
Sutton made the apology as the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, announced 21 new coronavirus cases and seven more deaths in the state on Saturday. It was the lowest number of new Covid-19 cases in the state since 24 June.
“Those numbers tell a powerful story of what can be achieved when you stay the course,” he said.
“When you don’t get sidetracked by some of the loudest voices, who I understand are hurting and want to open up … but we won’t be open for very long if we don’t first get these numbers down to a low level.”
There are now 834 active cases in Victoria, 806 of which are in Melbourne and 28 in regional Victoria. More than half the total – 433 cases – are in aged care.
Public health authorities have raced to stop infections growing in the Casey and Dandenong council areas on Melbourne’s south-east rim, which now has 90 active cases, three of whom have been admitted to hospital. Five households in Clyde, Cranbourne North, Hallam and Narre Warren South are linked to 34 active cases.
Contact tracers discovered members of each house had been breaching the 5km travel limit for visits. A special team has been created to target the cluster, with the government saying it is in conversation with local community members and leaders.
Other cases in the area are linked to workplaces, including nine connected to a truck manufacturer and six to Dandenong police station.
Sutton said on Saturday it was wrong to single the Afghan community out in reference to the cluster, describing his remarks as “inappropriate”.
Sutton had said earlier in the week that he was attempting to engage with the Afghan community in Casey as a priority and the Herald Sun reported on Saturday the community felt scapegoated by his comments.
“First up with an apology. Some members of the community might have felt singled out by statements I made recently. That was absolutely not my intention,” he said. “[Afghanistan] is a country a love and respect and its people. So I apologise.”
Sutton said when he made the remarks he had been reflecting on his volunteer work in Afghanistan in 1997 and 2003. He said he wanted to reinforce that all communities were doing their best to care for those closest to them.
“I inadvertently called out Afghanistan, which I think was inappropriate, but I was just reflecting on my experience of working with diverse communities internationally in humanitarian work and the fact that there really is a universal human experience,” he said.
In New South Wales, a further three cases were recorded in the 24 hours up to 8pm on Friday. Two of those were in hotel quarantine and one was a locally acquired case that is under investigation. The case under investigation worked at Concord hospital while potentially infectious and caring for patients with Covid-19.
Queensland marked another day with no new coronavirus cases on Saturday as the state prepares to further reopen its borders. It has been nine days since the Queensland has recorded a community transmission of Covid-19, while its number of active infections has fallen to 22.
Follow-up wastewater testing in southern Queensland has also come back negative for coronavirus after fragments were detected in an earlier sewage test.
Chief health officer Dr Jeannette Young said the low-level virus fragments detected at the Pulgul wastewater treatment plant in Hervey Bay were probably due to an older case of Covid-19 that was no longer infectious.
Also on Saturday, Andrews confirmed retired police officers would be recalled to help conduct household checks in what the state opposition said was a “recipe for disaster”.
The state’s opposition police spokesman, David Southwick, accused the premier of repeating the mistakes of the “botched” hotel quarantine program.
“Daniel Andrews has doubled down on shortcut solutions and now seeks to empower Victoria police veterans to lock people up in their homes,” Southwick said.
Andrews urged the state’s residents to continue to get tested. He said it was positive there had been 12,000 tests in the past 24 hours but he was concerned some people might be avoiding getting tested in an effort to keep numbers low.
He said such behaviour would have a greater impact on the state’s ability to reopen than choosing to come forward for testing.